Do not miss the lesson amidst all the hero-worship. Tiger Woods was telling us his comeback from knee and back surgeries was all about work ethic, but the media wanted to focus on miracles.
Recall the same misrepresentation after the 1980 U.S. Olympic Team beat the Soviets in what will forever be called the “Miracle on Ice.” I watched Herb Brooks drive the team through painfully long, hard, super-fast practices for six months. Speaking as an objective nerd, I’ll spoil the myths and remind you there is no such thing as a miracle, because somewhere in science there is an explanation. In this case, that explanation should interest every young hockey player.
Two years before Tiger’s fifth Masters win, he had his fourth and final back surgery, following an endless string of repairs to knees and legs for stress fractures, torn ligaments and cartilage damage. Not included in that list are the emotional and physical damage from a drunken argument with his wife and eventual crash into a fire hydrant. There was a lot of personal improvement between those dark days and the time Tiger’s life would return to the pinnacle – when he would raise the trophy and bear-hug his children as he had 22 years earlier with his dad.
In April 2017, Tiger actually thought there was a real chance he would never walk again, much less play like every dad with his children. And he feared he might never play golf. But he did walk, he did play with his kids, and eventually he could actually swing a golf club.
With that gift from the surgeons – the ability to walk and swing pain free – Tiger decided to train with no goal other than to have a normal life, and who knows, maybe hit some golf balls. So the work began – 12 hours a day of physical training and endless golf shots. Less than a year later, he actually returned to competition – with limited success, of course.
But that changed soon. Fifteen months after his final back surgery, he was challenging at the top of the leaderboard in two major championships. Eighteen months post-surgery, he won the prestigious 2018 Tour Championship. Of course, this amazing recovery and win were called “miraculous.”
In Tiger’s eyes, the only miracle was that surgeons had allowed him to train hard without pain. He knew what his own role would be, and he lived it every day. He got up early, trained in the gym, then practiced the rest of the day on the putting green and practice areas.
After winning the Masters, he was asked the usual questions: How did you feel when the pressure grew in the final holes? During your recovery was it ever so bleak that you considered giving up? His answers were straight to the point: “I live for the pressure,” and “Giving up is never an option.”
It’s fun to watch great athletes do their thing in the biggest competition. To watch Tom Brady roll out Super Bowl wins each year, it seems routine from our living room couch. But read about Brady’s preparation, as the leader of his team’s consistent practice focus, and the word “miracle” doesn’t come to mind. When Brady tweeted his congratulations after Tiger’s championship – when Serena Williams said she had tears in her eyes watching the comeback win – these great athletes were sharing a common sense of pride the rest of us dream about. But they also shared with Tiger an unspoken respect for the preparation that was necessary before the accomplishment.
Tiger, Brady, Serena and every member of the 1980 Olympic hockey team would tell any young hockey player: If you really want to improve this summer, practice your skating for hours on and off the ice. Work on stick skills until your hands bleed. Train your body to become the most explosive athlete you can be. And when someone asks you about your “miraculous” improvement over the summer, just say, “There are no miracles, only predictable success from hard work.”